Nicole Kidman as Silvia Broome
Sean Penn as Tobin Keller
Catherine Keener as Dot Woods
Jesper Christensen as Nils Lud
Yvan Attal as Philippe
Earl Cameron as Zuwanie
George Harris as Kuman-Kuman
Michael Wright as Marcus
Maz Jobrani as Mo
Yusuf Gatewood as Doug
Byron Utley as Jean Gamba
Silvia Broome (Nicole Kidman), who has escaped from the violence that is tearing apart her home – the tiny African country of Matoba – and is doing her part to find a peaceful solution to the violent problems that plague her country and the world by working as a translator at the U.N. When she overhears a plot to assassinate the dictator of Matoba at the U.N., Secret Service agent Tobin Keller (Sean Penn) is assigned to investigate and protect her.
The Interpreter is a film about the real-world repercussions of violence, and the choice humanity has to end it, not with more violence, but with understanding, communication, and compassion. It is a potent and hopeful idea in today’s climate of unrest and terrorism, and as a character drama about dealing with violence and loss, The Interpreter is a quiet success.
Unfortunately, The Interpreter is a thriller, and all of the qualities that make it a successful character study rob it of the tension a thriller needs to succeed. It has one sterling high point, when all of the different characters and thriller elements come together on a tense bus ride in Brooklyn, as several different people who’s fates are connected together unknowingly sit feet away from each other and Agent Keller, the only one who knows what is happening, can’t do anything to stop it.
It’s an extremely successful moment, more successful than the films actual climax. By the end, director Sidney Pollack has spent so much time with Silvia and Tobin at the expense of the tension, building plot elements a thriller needs to keep moving forward, that he has to play quite a bit of bait and switch to get things where they need to be for the climax he wants, which is moving but by that point a bit ridiculous.
Many thrillers use their characters as nothing more than cardboard cutouts to be put through the motions of the plot, so much so that by the time the plot boils over we don’t care, because we don’t know who the characters are or why they’re doing what they’re doing. Pollack is to be commended for not falling into that trap, but in his effort to make the audience understand Silvia and Tobin he’s gone too far in the other direction. So much time is spent with them, that nothing happens very often, and when things do happen they don’t make much sense – particularly towards the end when Silvia disappears for the last ten minutes, then magically reappears in the one place she shouldn’t be able to be.
Kidman and Penn are both excellent in their roles, though between the two Kidman has a bit more to work with. They are both playing damaged character’s trying to come to terms with loss. Penn’s Tobin Keller is a victim of action-thriller cliché; a cop suffering from a recent personal tragedy, out of contact with normal life, whose only refuge is the job. Penn and Pollack rise to the occasion and make more of him than that, but there is only so much they can do. Their scenes together are quietly excellent, brimming with remorse and hope. Pollack focuses in on the two of them like a laser, but at the expense of the rest of the cast. No one else really has anything to do, except for what little is needed to keep the plot moving. Catherine Keener, in particular, is wasted in a thankless role as Tobin’s partner.
The Interpreter is a well-made piece of drama with a pair of fine performances, and a truly profound theme. It’s heart is in the right place. If only it were a bit more exciting.